Wednesday, February 11, 2009
Cheaper power from wind -- it works!
Wikimedia Commons image of wind turbine installation
I get a lot of questions from the general public on wind power and community wind. One set of questions, asked a few weeks ago, was 1) how much of our total electrical power we might expect to produce from wind turbines?, 2) whether that was really significant in terms of our energy problems?, 3) whether it would lead to reduced prices for power?, 4) reduced greenhouse gas emissions?, and 5) closure of coal-fired power plants?.
I had responded that we didn't yet know all the answers to these questions, but that we had theoretical answers, and more practical information was beginning to come in, from the countries that have the most wind power already installed, Denmark and Spain:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/feb/09/windpower-spain gives a good idea.
1) How much of our total electrical power might we expect to produce from wind turbines?
This is normally given as 20%. The Danes are at about that right now. The article above shows that this number can be exceeded for short periods of time.
2) Is this really significant in terms of our national-level energy problems?
I think so, although if you were looking for a silver bullet, you'll have to keep looking. All energy choices require some sacrifice in terms of money, pollution, or land use. If energy were free and always present where needed or wanted, we'd have colonized Mars and Venus by now, and we wouldn't be nearly as worried about human life on this planet! In economics, particularly in markets controlled by cartels like OPEC, small percentage points of difference can make a very big difference to the outcome of some models. The "swing share" phenomenon in oil is a case in point. It was only a 10% shift in production from the middle east to Alaska and the North Sea that resulted in the $10/barrel oil of the 1990s. In this case, a serious effort in renewable energy production that meets anything like 10, 15, or 20% of our needs in the electrical sector will tend to make more of a buyers market for oil and gas, which will improve national security, given that oil and gas revenues boost the military capacity of countries hostile to the west, such as Russia or Iran, or encourage those western countries we have political difficulties with, such as Venezuala.
3) Will wind power development lead to reduced prices for power?
I tend to think that the Spanish example in the article can be duplicated. The nature of wind power is such that the cost of power is shifted from fuel to plant. Plant lasts longer, has a stable price, and maintenance and replacement/refurbishing costs can be amortized. This fits the definition of "sustainable" capital from Daly (and Hicks). Wind power may well act as a defense against inflation in macro-economic terms, because it is not consumptive of fuel, whose price is a driver of inflation. The key is to get the plant built, and I imagine Spain is enjoying it's success with these wind farms right about now.
4) Will wind power reduce greenhouse gas emissions?
The Danish grid helpfully produced an English language version of it's environmental report here, showing unequivocal reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, some large proportion of which is attributed to wind power development (the rest being conservation and energy efficiency). There are also reductions in conventional pollution from mercury, nitrous oxides, and sulfur dioxide.
5) Will wind power lead to closure of coal-fired power plants?
No, not right now. The base load problem is still present. Wind power doesn't work all the time, and so you have to have some better base-load system for when power demand cannot be met by wind. Coal, nuclear power and oil are the usual choices. Natural gas, hydropower, large scale solar and nuclear power are useful peak load technologies.
But smart grid and distributed power production thinking and technology will allow us to incrementally reduce the percentage of power needed for base load as we install wind capacity. So it may be possible to phase out coal plants one day directly because of wind. An example of this kind of radical thinking is the recent proposal to build peak-use solar power stations in some spots in Maine, rather than to expand the current transmission network and connect it more thoroughly to the New England regional grid. Another example are the prototype Hyperion nuclear power plants for distributed power use. A third is the idea that plug-in hybrid and battery electric cars can collectively form a national power storage system.
More importantly, wind power reduces the need to run coal and oil fuel through these power plants, reducing greenhouse gas emissions immediately, as soon as a new turbine gets plugged into the grid, This also reduces the need to build new power plants.